In Hungary, the 1999 Hyundai Excel was known as the Pony, and wow did you want to have a ride in it. The way the sunlight cast over its sinuous, dark blue jelly bean 90’s curves, those sultry headlights, and most of all, that proud ‘Twin Cam’ sticker that announced to the other exotica you’d just blitzed by that this, Sir, was the updated, 75kW version of Hyundai’s magnificent and storied 1.5L inline four.
Inside, things got even better. That oily aroma that would emanate from the dash when the sun hit it on a hot day just primed the driver’s senses that this was a machine to be enjoyed. When the rear view mirror fell off the windscreen, the opportunity to re-attach itself upside down to said dash like a 1950s streamliner evoked the Mille Miglia for every drive thereafter.
Sure, the front seats weren’t luxuriously padded (though the red, pink and blue polka dots on black cloth were as classic as any tartan, or houndstooth) but they were lightweight, and what was this car about, if not performance? Its sporty exterior and chic interior would be enough, but Hyundai went for gold and added to those things a spacious interior and a giant boot, capable of carrying four lanky young men about whenever the need arose.
If the car had foibles, they were characterful ones rather than anything that could truly detract. The tyres were overwhelmed by my father’s first prod of the (perfectly fueled) throttle, as the Excel had circa 50% more Ponies (ahem) compared to the other manual ‘learners car’, the 1993 Ford Festiva Trio 1.3 (the trio itself a hot ship, and perhaps I will write a review about it’s Audi Ur Quattro-aping hips some day). And truth be told, the Excel’s gearshift quality was, true to contemporary reviews, akin long wooden spoon in a bowl of metal shavings. The suspension was a little soft, but that just meant you had plenty of notice that it was going to bottom out. The car mostly encouraged easing off the helmsmanship, and instead prompting you to relax and listen to the excellently appointed AM/FM/CD player. Turn on the entirely adequate air conditioning or heating and just demolish distance and daily duties with the aplomb and confidence that classic Hyundais have.
Look. Once we had vapour lock problems. And the windscreen would grease up more quickly than you would expect, even whilst being driven exclusively by four teenagers. It did die at some stage in my sisters care because of a little ‘oil starvation’ quirk. But surely these are small flies in what is a magical ointment that, for one month, was deservedly Australia’s best selling car?
The 1999 Hyundai Excel Sprint. May you live forever in my heart.